Rob Marrs, head of education at the Law Society of Scotland, explains some of the basic ways you can improve your chances of getting that elusive traineeship position.
One of the difficulties of giving careers advice is that much of it seems obvious: tailor your applications, do your research, remember to identify the organisation to which you are applying correctly, proof-read your applications.
None of this is rocket science. Yet time and again we know that law students fail to abide by these simple rules. We know that for two reasons: firstly, those involved in trainee recruitment tell us it happens routinely. Secondly, we review lots of CVs. We literally see these errors on our screens.
So let’s go over the real basics. In some of the points there are links to longer pieces. Please do dive into those if you think you need more information.
1. Know why you want to be a solicitor.
Know why you want to be trained at a particular organisation. Everyone knows when an application is dialled in, or part of a vast 'copy and paste'. Ask yourself: why do you want this job?. The answer should be specific to the organisation.
2. Research where you are applying and tailor applications accordingly.
If you want to be a criminal defence lawyer then don’t apply to boutique commercial law firm.
Know about the work they do, what they specialise in, what they are good at, where are their offices etc. It isn’t difficult to find out about transactions or cases they’ve been involved in. Most of the larger firms publish blogs on their website about their work. Read these. Follow the solicitors of the organisation on Twitter. Read their entries in the legal directories. Look at case reports and any media coverage of those reports. Get to know the sectors they work in. Applying to a firm with a large oil and gas practice? Read around the oil and gas industry. What are the big issues in the sector? Speak to anyone you know at the firm (and if you don’t know anyone try and find a way to know someone). Speak to representatives at law fairs. Smaller firms and in-house teams may not appear at law fairs but most of the other advice here holds.
3. Do not apply at the last minute. It never ends well.
4. Proof-read your CV and covering letters.
Precision is fundamental to the legal profession and your application is your chance to demonstrate to an employer that you have this attribute. Remember the importance of grammar, punctuation and syntax.
5. Never exaggerate your CV.
A half-truth is a whole lie. Exaggeration is also astonishingly easy to spot or find out. You did not revolutionise anything on your week-long placement at a law firm. That’s fine: you aren’t expected to, but don’t claim that you did. Everyone reading knows it isn’t true.
6. Don’t oversell legal work experience or undersell non-legal work experience.
Pretty much every legal recruiter will be more impressed by someone who has shown commitment to a non-legal role (eg. showing that they have been able to commit to work; gain and shoulder responsibilities; juggle work and study; can communicate in a workplace etc) than by a week or two of legal internship.
Candidates with great non-legal work experience consistently undersell this because of a misunderstanding that legal work experience is everything. That isn’t to say internships don’t matter, they do but they aren’t all important.
7. Evidence your claims
Everyone claims to have excellent communication skills and IT skills whilst being good team players who can work alone. This is CV fodder. If you must include these lines then be able to evidence what you mean by those things.
8. Understand what commercial awareness is and realise that now means having an understanding of technology.
9. If you have relatively rare skills or competencies sing about them from the rooftops.
Not every law graduate can manage projects, or code, or speak a second language: if you can, tell the world!
10. Learn to write well
Written advocacy is important for many lawyers. Increasingly cases (especially in civil practice) are won and lost on paper. This means that a crisp, accurate, convincing style is important. Strong written advocacy is about conveying an idea with clarity and vigour. It is more than proof-reading and pretty margins.
Imagine the person reading your application is a reasonably interested individual who wants to leave the office and who has already read more applications than they would have liked to read. Depressingly that is probably an accurate description of the situation.
11. Learn how to answer competency-based application and interview questions.
Always ask yourself: why would an organisation need this competency in a trainee? Always link answers back to what you might one day be doing as a trainee.
12. Do not cut corners just because you’ve completed the application.
Ask yourself: is there any unnecessary language? Remember that you are aiming for precision and clarity. Cut the flowery language and present the case for employing you clearly. Once you’ve done that, re-read it until you are bored. Then get other pairs of critical eyes to look over it.
13. Don’t be afraid to take an intelligent risk.
A HR person at law firm may read dozens of applications for a handful of roles. That knowledge should force you to demonstrate an aspect of your life experience, work history or interests which will capture their attention. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve told me that something interesting on their application is the thing that everyone asks about in interviews, be that sport, debating, volunteering at a food bank, or political party membership.
14. If at interview you are asked for your opinion, state it.
The profession is an adversarial one and recruiters are looking for someone who can argue a case convincingly. Be firm in your position and do not necessarily change it even upon resistance from the panel (although it is best to play the ball as you find it here). Be confident but not certain of your opinion (using words like ‘I take the view’ or ‘I am of the opinion that…’). No one wants a belligerent trainee nor do they want a submissive one – walk the line between those imposters when answering opinion questions.
15. If it doesn't work out, ask for feedback and be civil.
Always ask for feedback and be open to critical feedback. Thank the organisation for taking the time to interview you and offer feedback. The Scottish legal world is a village. Everyone recalls the jerk who doesn’t say thank you.